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The changing role of the agent 3

29 August 2016

The changes digitisation has brought about in the agent's role are substantial but one of the unchanging things about getting an agent is that developments in the publishing world have made remarkably little difference to it - it's as difficult as ever, some would say more so.

Agents have been particularly active in asserting authors' rights to a better share of ebook royalties, but as far as the big publishers are concerned, they have been largely unsuccessful in this. The rate is fixed at 25%, rather than the 50% the agents - and their clients - would like to get. You could argue that this is a considerably better royalty than what has been paid, and still is, on hardback and paperback rights, but it's also true that ebooks have a very low production cost.

This dispute has been the source of some friction between agents and publishers. The main reason for this is that, providing that the publisher has absorbed all the start-up costs, such as the advance, editing, preparing the book for publication, publicity and promotion costs etc, in the initial hardback print run, it certainly will be cheaper to produce the ebook edition. Not only will there be no paper and print costs, but the publishers benefit hugely from not holding stock of print books, just supplying ebooks as a digital file.

This is shown by the fact that publishers have done surprisingly well out of ebook editions (shown in a negative way by Penguin Random House's recent lower profits being due to a decline in ebook sales). But it's also fair to argue that if there wasn't a print edition it would be much more expensive to produce the ebook as a standalone edition, as ebook-only publishers have found, unless you are talking about reprinting backlist titles. Thus the great success of companies such as Open Books, which specialise bringing out of print books back into ‘print' as ebooks.

There are other contract and terms discussions which are ongoing as agents seek to get better deals for their authors.

Although agents are well-established in the US and the UK, publishers in many other countries are not used to dealing with them and there is sometimes resistance to doing so. New agents in countries ranging from France to India (see this report) can find it hard to establish themselves. Publishers are used to dealing direct with authors and have found it quite straightforward to keep royalties and advances low. Agents are better negotiators and will make their presence felt in negotiating contracts.

We still need to look at what it's like working with an agent and how to go about finding one, so next week's article will move on to these topics.

Inside publishing: The relationship between publishers and agents